The New Behavioral Trojan Horse

The desktop has long been regarded by many as the online advertising and marketing Holy Grail. In the race to create precise, low-waste targeting technology to reach consumers, many smart marketers have realized regardless of browser (Explore, Firefox, Netscape, etc.), the common denominator for most Web-based activities harkens back to the desktop, the host of application icons and a visual navigation sitemap.

Desktop behavioral targeting was brought into the spotlight recently with Claria’s accouncement of the formal launch of PersonalWeb. The new product enables publishers to provide customized Web content, including news, editorial, RSS (define) feeds, and sponsored content. A proprietary algorithm bases all this delivery on the user’s browsing behavior. The product was intended to compete against industry giants such as Yahoo, Google, and MSN, which already offer similar services and functionalities.

Although this product was first made public in May of last year, the recent reannouncement and formal launch of PersonalWeb in March firmly demonstrate Claria plans to part ways with the adware business.

Interestingly enough, it also served as a reminder of desktop targeting’s untapped potentials.

What does this mean for behavioral targeting? Has behavioral targeting finally (and officially) moved onto the desktop battlefield?

New Breed of Personalized Trojan Horse?

The advertiser practice of using desktop toolbars or downloadable applications as Trojan horses (define) to track and target consumer activities has always been an interesting debate. Some believe this is a deceitful marketing tactic, others are convinced the “equal exchange” of free software with tracking between marketers and consumers is an act of mutual consent free of dishonesty.

Although the integrity of fine print or excessive legal jargon usage in contracts is beyond the scope of discussion here, what’s certainly worthy of considering is how the exchange between consumer and marketer has evolved.

The new breed of Trojan horse no longer just preys on the advertising opportunity created by consumer opted-in software downloads. More important, it capitalizes on the need for the essential online experience: personalization.

Compared with other personalizable tools offered by larger competitors, PersonalWeb claims to intelligently and automatically help consumers organize content based on unique but non-personally identifiable actions to provide a more relevant media consumption experience.

Another unique PersonalWeb selling point takes personalization to a higher level by empowering consumers with the choice to put the application in pause, thus disabling the monitoring system from tracking their Web interactions on demand. This type of fully opt-in privacy has been discussed and supported by many before, but Claria offers perhaps one of the first available products that actually provide consumers with such control.

The Answer Lies in “The Fifth Element”

The question arising from any discussion of desktop- versus browser-based behavior is naturally, “Which one is (or will be) more effective in providing behavioral targeting?”

Fundamentally, this question is near-sighted and wrong. Whether a browser-based behavior or a desktop-based one is irrelevant in the ultimate pursuit of efficient media targeting.

Let me explain.

We know desktop activities are much more diverse than browser-based ones, since desktop behaviors may include application use. Meanwhile, browser-based behaviors are limited to online page views and content consumption/creation.

But what if companies such as Microsoft create Web-based applications that allow consumers to use online versions of Word and PowerPoint, store these files online, and access them almost regardless of desktop location or browser type? In fact, Microsoft is already considering the advertising revenue potential of Web-based applications.

Quoting from the movie “The Fifth Element” (yes, a source totally unrelated to online media), “Time is of no importance, only life is important.” As we move from an interface- (or device-) based experience to a person-based experience, the real question shouldn’t be desktop versus browser, but rather how do we reach an individual across multiple channels and media environments?

What Does This Mean for Online Media?

According to Claria’s Feedback Research, about 14 percent of consumers who visited major portals (including Yahoo, MSN, and AOL) personalize their experience. It also finds users with personalized pages spend 90 percent more time at those sites. Clearly, there’s direct correlation between personalization and loyalty.

Personalization has become required currency to gain consumer loyalty. Some use downloadable software in addition to an already personalizable Web interface (e.g., Yahoo, MSN, Google, etc). Others use them as a cost-effective, easy entry points into consumers’ online experiences (e.g., Alexa, Claria, etc). All of which is to gain a bigger share of the online consumer’s attention and loyalty.

At the end of the day, behavioral targeting is really about the individual and her actions. It’s meant to create and deliver a one-to-one experience of advertising relevance. As marketing shifts away from interface/device reliance to a more individual-focused premise, concern over where behaviors and actions take place will eventually become, “How do we track and reach this person across media?”

EMarketer recently predicted online behavioral campaign spending will more than double from last year’s $925 million to $2.1 billion in 2008. Whether the industry will need an ultimate Trojan horse to achieve such growth is questionable, but I sure look forward to that fist billion-dollar mark.

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